Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Easter Island Mysteries: What happened to the trees?

Anakena, the main beach on the Island.  Quite pretty, there are actually only two small beaches on the island
So what happened to the trees?  This is actually quite the mystery.  No one knows for sure when the last tree died.  No one even knows what trees originally grew on the island.  Were they all palms?  Were there other trees?

The traditional narrative is that the trees were all cut down to make statues.  But even the latest dates for the removal of all the trees on the island (the 1600's is about as late as the guesses get) don't go all the way to the end of the statue making period.  The biggest statues were actually made AFTER the trees were gone.

There is a recent paper that suggests that the trees were all killed by rats.  Most all the archaeologists I've spoken to here don't buy it.  I personally think that a combination of human usage and rat destruction probably accelerated the deforestation, but that only applies to certain palm species.  If there were other kinds of trees then it pretty much has to be human agency that deforested the island.

I heard over dinner the other night that there is potentially some late date wood from a non-palm tree. The stuff is still being studied, but it could actually push the date for deforestation closer to the historic era and indicate other local species besides palms.  The people I've talked to seem convinced that there were multiple species of trees on the island.

So what happened to the trees?  The honest answer is that no one knows for sure, we don't know how many or what kind of trees there were.  It's a mystery.

I jokingly refer to this as my legally mandated photo op

The real mystery, why?  If you look at the side of the mountain you can see little notches and caves, all of those are places where a statue was carved.  Clear up the side of the mountain, and even on top.  The grassy slopes are actually meters deep deposits of stone chips from making the statues.  There are entire statues completely buried under the detritus.  No one knows how many.  Sounds like a job for GPR (Ground Penetrating Radar) to me.

I was just proud of this photo of Tongariki I took from Rano Raraku
As an update on my work here, I am enjoying being in the lab.  UNESCO and the Japanese government built a nice fully modern lab at the museum.  I'm doing science and it's fun.  I'm washing and analyzing lots of rocks.  It's pretty fun for me, though maybe not everyone's cup of tea.

No comments:

Post a Comment